Free Market Arguments Against Vouchers

This past weekend I attended the Free Minds Film Festival in Colorado Springs, and it was fantastic. Among the great documentaries we saw wasThe Cartel, a film by Bob Bowden about the shocking corruption in the New Jersey government schools.

I spoke on a panel following the film with Bowdon and Ben DeGrow.Following are my remarks. (I believe the organizers of the film fest will publish video of the entire panel.)

Listeners might be confused as to why I oppose vouchers and yet support tax credits and charter schools (as interim reforms). I think any political reform needs to pass a two-part test.

1. Does the reform expand or weaken protections of individual rights? Liberty activists should support reforms that obviously expand individual rights and oppose reforms that obviously weaken them. If a reform is neutral with respect to individual rights, then move to the second test.

2. Does a reform improve results? If so, support it. Remember that we’ve already decided the reform does not further weaken individual rights. If a reform strengthens individual rights, it necessarily improves results; the moral is the practical.

In light of that test, I’ll briefly review the three sorts of reforms.

A charter school does not increase taxes levied. Instead, it offers families and educators a means to escape some of the worst problems of the teachers’ unions and political education controls. So I think charters pass the second test.

A tax credit, as I’ve reviewed before, threatens to bring new political controls to nominally private schools. For that reason tax credits may weaken individual rights, which is why I’ve always been nervous about them. On the other hand, a tax credit would not increase net taxes levied, while it would offer tax payers significantly more choice in how to spend their education-directed dollars.

A voucher program suffers two problems. It brings new controls to nominally private schools, and it also forces some taxpayers to finance religious institutions against their will, in violation of their freedom of conscience. So I think vouchers clearly fail the first test.

In watching Bowdon’s film, I realized that charter schools and vouchers largely end up in the same place: schools still controlled by politicians but with significantly greater parental control. But there are two important differences. First, charter schools simply cannot be religious in nature. Second, there is no confusion about charter schools being “private.” The proponents of vouchers explicitly call schools “private” which receive voucher funds, and that destroys the very distinction between political force and the genuinely free market.

I think the best set of interim reforms, then, consists of charter schools in conjunction with universal tax credits in which tax payers are restricted to giving their forcibly confiscated funds to charter schools. I also think charter schools should be very easy to start, with clear and simple rules and evaluations. This expands the options of parents and expands the choice of those footing the bill, but it retains the important distinction between government-financed education and free-market education.

In a free market, people without children may decide whether to contribute their funds to education, and if so in what way and in what amount. Parents, educators, and voluntary organizations bear responsibility for organizing and financing education. By the standards of free markets and individual rights, that remains the ultimate goal. A free market is the only system in which “education choice” fully becomes reality.